Tuesday, November 21, 2017

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One of the news stories beyond Meaford's borders that I have been following for several months has been the growing friction between residents in the Blue Mountains and their council and library board.

In March of last year, the nine employees who staffed the L.E. Shore library in Thornbury were unceremoniously dismissed in what was framed as a 'restructuring', in order to incorporate the Craigleith Depot as an additional outlet for library services in the community.

The firings came with no warning. In fact, a notice on the library website the day the firings took place advised the community that the library was closed that day for a 'staff development training day'. If the staff – one of whom did not attend the meeting as she was on maternity leave at the time, so she instead was informed of her firing when a courier delivery person knocked on her door – felt blindsided by the sudden dismissals, so too was the community, which quickly organized and held protests.

Those protests were followed by a relentless campaign by community activists that has managed to keep the issue on the front burner while at the same time has highlighted a steadily eroding trust in their elected officials.

It is clear from what little has been reported and from the numerous social media discussions that the community isn't getting answers from their councillors or the library board members – at least not all of the answers that they would like. A wall has gone up, and when a wall goes up, what comes next is often a campaign of hurling angry banter over the wall. That angry banter, for even the most responsible community members can quickly turn to vitriol and insults. And that's just what's happened. And when that happens, elected officials can either build a door in the wall in an attempt to open dialogue with the community, or they can reinforce the wall.

It seems to me that there's been quite a bit of reinforcing taking place.

Much of the battle has been waged on social media, where daily posts on Facebook – at times highly critical of members of council and the library board – have served to fire up the community, and to anger members of council and the library board. One board member even decided to try to damage the career of one of the more vocal community members, a local teacher, by filing a complaint with the College of Teachers – a complaint that was quickly dismissed. The actions of the community member leading up to that complaint being filed were inappropriate, and the community member publicly acknowledged that fact. In any battle it is not uncommon for all sides to step over lines from time to time, but to extend a local government battle to attacking a resident's career seems to me to be really stepping over the line. At the meeting last Thursday, February 16, an apology was sought from the board member who thought it appropriate to use that local battle to damage a resident's career, but none was forthcoming.

In addition to their frustration with their elected officials, residents in that community have also been frustrated by something else – a lack of media coverage. The folks in the Blue Mountains have been discovering what many communities will be discovering in the coming years as community newspapers continue to disappear – without media to act as a watchdog, local governments might feel less inclined to be transparent, or to even respond to the collective frustration of the community.

A few years back the community lost their local newspaper, the Courier Herald, which had been owned and operated by a corporation which itself is owned by an even larger corporation based in Toronto. When large corporations own small community newspapers it is often not good for those small communities, and when the bean counters decide that a community newspaper should be shuttered, a void is left that might never again be filled.

True, there is a new online paper serving the community, but as with many small-town community newspapers, resources are extremely limited, and some hard decisions need to be made. The online paper in Thornbury has made no secret that political news, investigative reporting and analysis isn't part of its mandate – reporting on local politics, investigating hard news stories, and even providing analysis are resource-intensive activities that tiny one or two person-run community newspapers can have difficulty undertaking, so the editor of the online paper in Thornbury was sure to let the community know the scope of their coverage. “Our new mandate is to cover the good-news stories and events that shape this area and the people who live, work and play here,” informs the paper on its website.

They aren't alone. Many community newspapers have ditched all but the most cursory of local politics coverage, while others have abandoned things like arts and culture coverage, or, like The Independent, where we have stayed away from sports reporting – a luxury we simply can't afford.

I have been asked many times over the past year by residents in the Blue Mountains to cover their council and library board issues, and I have been polite but frank when asked – my hands are pretty darned full here in Meaford, so I don't have the time (or the energy) to immerse myself in the goings-on of another community.

That said, as I mentioned, I have been following the story via social media along with the very few news articles that had been written about it.

Last week a community activist group called VOCAL, which has been beating the drums over the fiasco for months, issued a 22-page timeline of events prior to a library board meeting. While I stand by the fact that I can't actively and adequately report on what has been taking place in the Blue Mountains, I decided to attend the board meeting last Thursday to get a feel for the climate in the community, and offer some opinion based on what I saw.

Keep in mind, the opinions I have formed are based on a series of snapshots. Snapshots of the two or three articles that were published a year ago when the firings took place and the community protested. Snapshots of the daily social media posts. And a snapshot of the library board meeting last week.

Snapshots are but a frozen moment of a much larger picture, but as the old saying goes, 'every picture tells a story', and here is what I have gleaned from those snapshots:

  • My very first thought while sitting alone at the media table for Thursday's library board meeting was that you simply don't have 50 residents show up at 2:00 in the afternoon on a workday to a library board meeting of all things, unless people are genuinely frustrated, concerned, and angry. And a municipality doesn't request the presence of police officers at a weekday afternoon library board meeting, unless they know the community is fuming. That said, the 50 or so residents who turned out on Thursday were respectful and calm, though from what I understand they have at times been a little rambunctious.

  • The board looked like any other board – members of the community who stepped up to take on a role that most of us wouldn't ever take on for a multitude of reasons. These are people to be respected, and appreciated – but also held to account. After all, the rest of us didn't want the job, but they did volunteer. And like any board position, council seat, or a seat in parliament, one thing is certain, it will often be a thankless job, a frustrating job, a job where your performance is publicly gauged and critiqued.

  • What I've seen in these snapshots is a loss of trust by the community in the people who are representing their interests for a service they care very much about. And I see a board that has been firebombed with anger and frustration, and who quite likely feel they can do nothing right at times.

The problem as I see it with my outsider's eyes comes down to transparency, accountability, and trust.

Over the past several months I have heard and read much from the community about the issues, but virtually nothing from elected officials, so in addition to the snapshots I've already mentioned, I took another snapshot last Thursday when I spoke to the chair of the library board, John McKean, who also happens to be the mayor in the Town of the Blue Mountains.

What's your take on the source of the friction between the community and council and the library board, and what can be done to solve it?, I asked McKean.

That's a really good question. I think that there's a lot of emotion still out there about it. I think if we take a step back and see how the library is working now, and the great uptake in service we've had at the depot down in Craigleith, and the amount of patrons and programs we're supplying down at the depot, and the great response we've had from the community down there – I think we just need to take a step back and see all the positives that have been coming out of it, and just keep an open mind,” said McKean.

(I would note that his response doesn't address the original source of friction, but rather asks the community to ignore the events that made them angry, to ignore having been blindsided, to ignore the trust that has been lost, and instead focus on today. In other words, the community needs to 'get over it' because all is good now, and that can be frustrating for a frustrated community to hear.)

Have you seen this much friction between the community and municipal government bodies before?

Sure, pass a 12 percent budget, that'll do it,” McKean said with a laugh.

Are you concerned about the fracture in the relationship with the community? (McKean paused for a full five seconds before answering.)

I won't say I'm not concerned, I'm just hoping that with more information – and there's some things when it comes to labour relations that you can never say, so we're not going to go there – but I think that overall the library is being really well run, and there's great programs, and it's the envy of Grey County to be quite honest.”

I also questioned McKean on the optics of his own appointment to the library board some six months ago in the midst of the community outcry over the sudden restructuring and staff firings combined with a loss of trust by many in the community. A public member had resigned from the board, and rather than post a notice of vacancy seeking applicants to fill the board seat, the Blue Mountains council opted instead to appoint Mayor McKean to the board, citing the available spots for council representatives, given that in the Blue Mountains they use a nine-member board which under the Library Services Act entitles the municipality to have up to four council representatives on the board.

McKean stressed that they had sought a legal opinion on his appointment and he felt confident that they had followed the legislation. While that may be true, as we all know in politics optics can be everything, and his appointment, in the wake of a fractured relationship with the community which has lost trust in their elected officials, hasn't gone over very well.

Very few of us humans are actually evil people. Most of us do our best to do our best. The frustrated community members are human. Humans get angry, humans get frustrated, and yes, sometimes humans raise their voices or say and do things they shouldn't when they are angry. But I'll tell you this – rarely does a large group of normal, reasonable people become collectively frustrated and angry without reason.

I always try to look for root causes.

I think the root cause in this situation is the trust lost in the library board as well as council, when nine employees and a community were surprised with the news that a restructuring was to occur, and nine valued library staffers would be fired and told they could re-apply in hopes of getting their job back.

Immediately prior to that moment, the community wasn't agitated, the community wasn't angry, the community wasn't protesting, and the library board members didn't feel like they were under attack.

So the question is, who was responsible for that moment? Who created the lack of transparency? Who has resisted accountability?

If the library board and council in the Blue Mountains took some time to reflect upon, and truthfully answer, those questions, they might find for themselves a path to repairing the fractured relationship with the community they are appointed or elected to serve.


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